Could a plumbing licensing scheme help reduce the volume and cost of escape of water claims?

  • Market Insight 11 March 2021 11 March 2021
  • UK & Europe

Is a licensing scheme needed to improve plumbing standards if we are nowhere closer to finding the golden ticket?

A failed pipe connection under a bath or behind a washing machine might at first appear insignificant, yet escaping water can remain undetected for days or months; it can track through floors and ceilings and can cause significant damage. A burst pipe can cause immediate and catastrophic damage.  

Of course a pipe can fail unforeseeably through ordinary wear and tear after years of use, but it is also evident that a large proportion of these problems arise out of the lack of skill by the installing or repairing plumber. BLM has seen an increase in the volume of these types of claims and for insurers, escape of water claims often represent a disproportionate number of the total claims received.  

Water damage can have extensive and devastating consequences for a business, the initial clean up takes time and money. Trying to quantify the loss can be a long and complex process. Yet, it has become increasingly common to see large claims arising out simple errors, such as a failure to properly crimp a joint. So why is this a problem and is there anything that insurers and customers can do to protect themselves?

Plumbung qualifications and industry regulation

Currently there are no legal requirements needed to set up a plumbing business in the UK. Gas engineers are required to be appropriately qualified and registered. A minimum standard of qualification is necessary to work on electrical systems. But, when it comes to plumbing, anyone can declare themselves a plumber without so much as picking up a text book.

There has long been calls for a statutory licensing scheme for plumbers, as exists currently in other countries, for example Australia, Hong Kong, Germany and the United States. Persons holding themselves out as professional plumbers in these countries must undergo formal training in order to become licensed. Accreditation offers a recognised level of competence and a level playing field for the profession.  

In the UK it is common to have very competent plumbers who have learnt their trade through years of experience but in fact have no formal qualifications. In the relatively recent past, the usual route has been through an apprenticeship leading to an NVQ qualification. However in more recent years the introduction of diplomas and short courses as entry points alongside a fall in the number of apprenticeships available has led to an inevitable fall in standards.

Basic background checks

Before instructing a plumber for any type of work, it is advisable to carry out some basic background checks on either the plumber, if self-employed, or the company employing them:

  1. How long have they been in business? 
  2. What qualifications do they have?
  3. Have they been recommended?
  4. Are they members of a trade organisation?

In an emergency, it may not always be possible to spend time gathering information, but a quick check of trade organisation accreditation is a swift and recommended option to reduce the risk of something going wrong. Generally trade associations seek to drive industry standards with ongoing training and professional development and therefore you are more likely to find a skilled plumber if they are registered with a recognised trade association.

The main trade associations for plumbers are:

  • The Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (APHC) – APHC work with the government, councils and consumer organisations to ensure their members meet specific standards.
  • Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) – the CIPHE has over 17,000 members, a minimum standard for entry and ongoing opportunities to gain further qualifications. Under their Code of Professional Conduct members are also required to participate in 30 hours Continuing Professional Development such as training courses, conferencing, or mentoring.  
  • Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation (SNIPEF) – the SNIPEF represents plumbing contractors ranging from sole traders to large scale businesses. It also manages the training of apprentices in Scotland and Northern Ireland and provides access to grants for continual professional development. 

What does the future hold?

A licencing scheme for the plumbing trade remains aspirational at this point in time. However, we have seen, only very recently, the release of the draft Building Safety bill which, although primarily concerned with the safety of construction in relation to high rise residential buildings, is an area ripe for discussion and expansion. The bill devotes an entire section to the issue of the competence of contractors who build, but it is but a small step to a scheme which regulates not only those responsible for the safety of buildings but the preservation of property.

Professional trade associations already task themselves with ensuring their members are suitably qualified. Ongoing training and Continuous Professional Development could become mandatory, as it is already for many other professionals involved in insurance work and the handling of claims.  

In time, underwriters may consider the way forward is through the use of policy conditions which seek to impose on insureds an obligation to only use plumbers they have ‘vetted’ first, or to only employ qualified plumbers and who are members of a trade association. In a drive to protect public welfare it is anticipated that the requirement to prove technical competence is going to increase in importance. This can only be a good thing.  

Claims for escape of water have only gone north – volume and value  - and unless we find the Golden Ticket, is this not the time to start lobbying for a licensing scheme for a trade which has so far remained under the radar when government turns its attention to the regulation of the professions?

If you are concerned about your property damage claims portfolio and would like support from the team on the issues affecting insurers, brokers, property developers, property owners, as well as residential and commercial landlords within the property damage space, then please do get in touch.

This content was written by BLM prior to its merger with Clyde & Co.



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